(Spoilers for book one ahoy.)
So the Trisolarans are coming, man! They’re coming! And humanity has four centuries to prepare. Particles called sophons are monitoring everything on Earth (all communication, written, spoken), and locking down technological and scientific advancement in order to cripple humanity in advance of their invasion. The only place safe from Trisolaran view is the individual human mind. Thus the Wallfacer Project is born. Four men (seriously, no ladies?) are chosen, and given almost unlimited resources. Their mission: To think up strategies to defeat the Trisolarans, and to obscure those strategies from everyone. This means they can discuss their plans with no one, and no one can question the orders of a Wallfacer, because everything they do might be part of the plan. The book charts the course of all four plans, focusing especially on the most curious Wallfacer, Luo Ji, on whom there is much speculation. No one knows why, but he’s the only human the Trisolarans ever ordered to be assassinated, and that’s why he was chosen as a Wallfacer. (The Wallfacer parts of the book were by far my favorite; I love watching sneaky plans be figured out or succeed.)
I loved The Three-Body Problem when I read it last year, as did many of you. It won the Hugo. I had some small issues with that book (mainly I felt it had some weak characters in big roles), but overall I found it interesting and exciting. So when I picked up this book, I assumed I would feel the same way. Only, no. That did not happen. Right away, I felt like I was slogging through the book. The ideas and main plot were still extremely intriguing, but everything I had a problem with in the first book seemed to have grown and reproduced.
I blamed this (as you can see below from my original “review”) on the translator at first. And I do think that is a huge difference. I don’t have proof yet because book three just came out and I haven’t read it yet, but I’m fairly confident that when I crack that sucker open, I will immediately notice the difference between Ken Liu’s style (who translated books one and three) and Joel Martinsen’s. It was just awkward, the whole way through. I expected some confusion and awkwardness because of cultural differences, but for me, this guy’s translation just does not work. His dialogue is awkward, his interpretation of Liu’s metaphorical language (which reads a bit purple to begin with, because of cultural differences, I’m guessing) made me laugh out loud. Reading this book compared felt like going backwards in time in terms of Liu’s writing ability.
Regardless of whether I’ve pinpointed the cause, the result was that I had an incredibly difficult time getting into this book, and put it down in February, not sure when I’d pick it back up. And when I finally got around to doing so, I used up all my renewals at the library, again, until I was forced to either decide to read it or return it, again. Last time I returned it. This time, I pushed through. I’m glad I did.
Once you get past the first quarter of this book, which Tor. com called “nearly impenetrable,” the book really picks up steam. It wavers again near the 3/4 mark, but then smacks you in the face with its ending, which considering how bleak the book was until then, and how it nearly made go into existential panic mode, had a curiously upbeat and optimistic ending. Ultimately, I think the book is worth it, but I can’t recommend it fully.
Particularly since the writing style wasn’t my only issue. I mentioned that characterization was a problem for me in the first book, and here that rears its ugly head again. None of the characters are likable, which isn’t necessarily a problem (good books don’t have to have likable characters), but it’s tough to spend so much time in the head of characters who are assholes (misogynistic, lazy, defeatist, pick your adjective) while you’re having a hard time with the language and the story. I’m honestly more concerned with the fact that aside from a couple of them, the characters act more like avatars for plot rather than complex, three-dimensional people. Misogyny is also real problem, though I tend to see it here as more of a function of ingrained cultural behaviors than outright disdain, combined with Liu’s tendency to write cardboard characters. If a woman is not a main character (and there are no women main characters in this novel) she’s not going to get much respect. (He had a woman protagonist in book one, and she was extremely interesting.) Don’t even start with me on Luo Ji’s idea of “the perfect woman”. (The Book Smugglers do a much better job of breaking this down than I do.)
But if you can push past those three barriers, the book is worth it. Really. You can definitely see the influence Golden Age sci-fi (Asimov, Bradbury) had on Liu as a writer. He’s a writer of ideas played across a magnificent scale, and he’s great at it. Humanity’s centuries-long struggle to prepare for the incoming Trisolaran invasion is riveting and terrifying, and the dark forest metaphor that gives the book its name is a great center for book to build itself around.
At least in its English translation, I hope that this book will be the one you have to get through between two great books. I’m hoping I’m not proven wrong about that when I finally get to that last book.